Ask Engine Bob

Q: Engine Bob, the other day I was waiting for my train in Grand Central, I looked up at the huge arch window above the concourse and saw what looked like someone walking around inside of it. What’s the deal? 

A: This may be a close to magic as the MTA is capable of. Well, no, actually, I guess true magic would be a reasonable monthly-commutation fare. But anyway, your eyes did not deceive you: It’s actually possible to walk about inside the concourse windows at Grand Central. 

The optical illusion is pretty simple, though. Those windows consist of two panels of plate glass—one facing the concourse interior, the other facing the outdoors. The panels are about four feet apart from each other, allowing for narrow catwalks to traverse them at each floor level of the Terminal building.  

Even more kick-ass than this: The catwalks themselves are made of huge slabs of frosted glass, allowing the outdoor light to pass through them and thereby making them nearly invisible from the vantage of the concourse floor. This is why, when you saw someone passing along one of the catwalks, he appeared to be walking on air. 

According to my GCT blueprints (public information, by the way), the four rectangular window bays on either side of the concourse rise 60 feet above the level of the balcony doorways. At the top, the cornice entablature interrupts them (that’s the fancy, gilded-plaster band on which spotlights alternate with scrolled brackets) and then 20 more feet of window glass caps the bays in the form of corresponding window arches that gradually curve outward into the concave shape of the ceiling.  

There are eight catwalks in total—six in the rectangular bays, two in the arches. (And while there are five glassed bays, there are six arches atop them, as the southernmost, 6th bay—which you’ll see rising behind the ticket booths—is a brick dummy.)  

Okay, enough of the technical stuff. Why the hell are the catwalks there? 

Unknown to most people, the Terminal building actually has quite a bit of office and storage space tucked way up and behind all those beautiful stone walls. Hell knows what the MTA uses them for today—quite possibly the Late Train Planning Center—but all the space is, obviously, a premium commodity for a midtown-Manhattan building. The catwalks were part of the original 1912 plans for the Terminal, and they allowed convenient access to the breadth of the hidden office space, which freed the architects (Warren & Wetmore, with Reed & Stem) from having to mar the effect of that stunning expanse of glass windows with closed corridors or iron balconies. Aside from serving office and storage spaces, the catwalks lead to the opulent landings of hidden, internal staircases that rise inside the Terminal’s corner piers. The very top catwalk (this one contains only a few windows that rise no higher than your knees) leads around to the base of a tiny run of steps that rise to the iron walkway suspended over the barrel vault ceiling. In the old days, the maintenance guys would use this walkway to replace—from behind—the tiny light bulbs that form the constellation painted in gold on the other side of the ceiling—which is plaster-on-lath and not much thicker than two of your fingers. (These days, those lights are LEDs, and don’t need replacing.) 

Yeah, I know. I’m dancing around the big question: How can one get up to the catwalks yourself? Legally, of course, you can’t. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t up inside both of those windows. Lots of times. (In fact, I know about the barrel-vault walkway because I managed to get up there once, too.) Thing is, all that was during the proverbial “pre-9/11” days—that blessed, unfathomably innocent period when we train geeks had little to fear from the authorities. I only got caught once, but the cop bought my line (I guess he ignored the fact that I was also wholly fortified with martinis I’d just knocked into my gullet at the Oyster Bar) and he let me go. 

These days, I’m pretty confident that they WON’T let you go if they catch you. Remember, too that—duh—if you do get up there, it’s damn well hard to keep a low profile when you’re walking around inside of a window overlooking the largest public room in New York City. I can also say (from experience) that just because you think you’re getting away with being up there does NOT mean someone’s not watching you and will be waiting for you once you slip out of the elevator on your hasty way out. 

Elevator, in fact, is about as close as I want to come to saying how it’s possible to get up into the window catwalks. Okay, somewhere between Tracks 21 and 23—but that’s ALL I’m gonna say. There are also some stairs by the Campbell Apartment—but that’s IT, okay? No more hints.  

But, listen Sherlock–chances are either a half-soused investment banker or an alarmingly sober cop is going to spot you before the little adventure even gets off the ground. I don’t go up there anymore myself—and not only because I don’t want to go to jail, but also because I don’t think it’s right to distract the cops when they could be doing more serious stuff like, oh, catching terrorists.  

So my advice is: Keep that shoe leather on the nice Tennessee marble floor of the concourse where it belongs. The Terminal’s got plenty of other cool secrets you can check out without trespassing, and I’ll write about them soon. 

—E.B.

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